Ramsgate Tunnels blackout tour – life underground during WWII

I studied history to A-level, which means eight years of lessons in total. Throughout this time, I failed to get excited about a single treaty-signing, nor could I remember any significant dates or locations (apologies to Mr Pugh, who remained cheerful despite my shortcomings).

What really interested me were the stories of the people involved in each battle, famine and revolution.

History lessons offered a glimpse into lives far removed from my own and brought to the life the often-stony sepia faces in our textbooks. Social history has continued to fascinate me, especially local history. I would relish the chance to travel back in time and take a stroll through the various towns I have lived in, chatting to passers-by, Quantum Leap style.

The area I was born in will always interest me. The Kent coastline has such a rich history and we’re surrounded by colourful tales of all kinds of people from smugglers to artists, miners to holidaymakers. Bit by bit, more of the county’s historic landmarks are being discovered, uncovered and opened to the public.

One of my favourite attractions is the Ramsgate Tunnels and this weekend I took part in a special ‘blackout’ tour.

The Ramsgate Tunnels on a previous visit, when the lights were on

The Ramsgate Tunnels comprise a mile-long former Victorian railway tunnel and more than two-and-a-half miles of Air Raid Precaution tunnels. It’s believed to be the most extensive underground public shelter system in Europe, if not the world. Built amazingly quickly in 1939, the tunnel network offered shelter to upwards of 15,000 people during World War II. My gran was amongst them.

Each Sunday during November the volunteers at the tunnels are hosting blackout tours which focus on the tragic and frankly terrifying days of November 1940. During that month there was an air raid, or air raid warning, every day and every day thousands of people fled to the tunnels, accessing them from ground-level entrances across the town.

As the name suggests, the tour was conducted in near darkness. We donned hard hats and were handed authentic looking Tilley lamps, the smell of paraffin wafting through the damp tunnels adding to the experience. I have toured the tunnels before but this time the route and the stories our (brilliantly knowledgeable) guide told us were very different. The Tunnel team has revealed previously covered entrances, large construction and ventilation shafts, and many, many more tales of life in this underground refuge.

As we walked beneath Ramsgate’s streets, past narrow bunk beds and alcoves housing metal toilet buckets, we tried to imagine the mix of fear and stoic determination local people would have felt as they made their way down to the safety of their subterranean village. Living conditions had been recreated; early makeshift room dividers were replaced by ‘rooms’ made of hessian covered frames which posed less of a fire risk. The tale of a homeless man whose hessian box in the tunnels constituted his first ever home was particularly touching.

Without doubt, the tunnels saved lives so it’s remarkable to think they almost weren’t dug out. There’s more to be uncovered on the site, literally and figuratively. It’s a shame my gran isn’t around to see the progress being made and share her stories, but I’ll be back and who knows, I may be able to retrace her steps one day.

The Ramsgate tunnel blackout tours take place during this month only, but regular tours run every week. Find out more at www.ramsgatetunnels.org

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